Ring Around the Rosy

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During the seventeenth century, the Bubonic Plague (aka Black Death) hit Europe with a vengeance. One of the symptoms of the plague was a red, rosy rash in the shape of a ring that manifested itself on the human skin of its victims.

As a result, the children of the era created a song to accompany a game in order to describe the physical elements of the disease. We know the tune and the game as Ring Around the Rosy.

One such element was believed to be a bad smell, instead of rats, that people thought actually transmitted the plague. Therefore, people carried posies, or sweet-smelling herbs in their pockets to ward off the disease.

The phrase ashes, ashes, we all fall down became a reference to the cremation of the dead bodies of the plague victims. The disease claimed more than half the population.

In any event, many nursery rhymes and fairy tales have hidden meanings. While they appear to be children’s tales, they are really quite complex.
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Comments

  1. I'd actually read this, elsewhere. I remember how stunned I was when I was first made cognizant of the origin.

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  2. You are right JJ. And the smelling of herbs put in peculiar face masks with big noses, that were worn by doctors of the time, also intended to mask the bad smell of decomposing dead bodies.

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  3. I have read this background on the song. What a gruesome origin for a song we all laughed to as children.

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  4. Suze: I read ya! I was stunned as well.

    FanaticoUm: I was not aware of that. Thank you!

    Galen: Yes. It is a good thing we did not know the history.

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  5. I remember thinking about this every time we played that 'game' in my days as a preschool teacher. The origins of fairy tales are just as dark. I guess we need a nice story or tune to make things easier to face sometimes. "Just a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way..."
    And thanks again for your positivity. You have no idea how much I need it. I am learning that we can get through anything. I just wish I could take some of my husbands pain away and deal with it myself.

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  6. I had heard this before, but forgotten the details. So many nursery rhymes are scary: Rock-a-Bye Baby, Jack and Jill, London Bridge, etc. Why parents would sing these things to their kids before bed is beyond me.... nightmare causing they are!!!!

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  7. It's amazing how many childrens' stories, songs and rhymes have quite gruesome origins!

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  8. I had a whole WEEK of the truth behind nursery rhymes!! It was a great set of posts to put together. I was both thrilled and scared at the same time. Here's the link to my one of Ring aroung the rosy and Humpty Dumpty. Really some interesting stuff!

    http://whosyoureditor.blogspot.com/2011/01/day-one-of-truth-behind-nursery-rhyme.html

    Oooh! I I did know about the doctors with their long nosed masked. They were much like the famous Venetian masks that were worn or mascarade balls!

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  9. Folklore fascinates me and I collect stories like this! I heard this years ago but I can't remember where.

    I also enjoy when musicians and writers use the backstory of familiar nursery rhymes or folklore in their work. In regards to "Ring around the Rosy", Dave Matthews has a song called "Gravedigger" and in the bridge of the song, he sings this old children's game song.

    Knowing the backstory of it really adds and air of extra creepiness to the song!

    Happy Friday!
    Jen

    PS: Thanks for the follow!

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  10. JJ I would like to know more about nursery rhymes with hidden meanings. I used to know more than just the one you mention, but for the life of me, I just can't remember them!!

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  11. Oh and London Bridge is Falling Down. What's that about??!?! It sounds quite sinister when one actually reads the lyrics too.

    Take care
    x

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  12. Suze: I get many of them because my wife teaches Children's Literature.

    FanaticoUm: Yes. I had forgotten about the masks.

    Galen: I wonder if the children of the era actually laughed, or if they understood the seriousness of the tune.

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  13. Old Kitty: There is no single version, just many theories. They range from child sacrifices, to difficulty in bridging the Thames, to Viking attacks. Who knows.

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  14. There are so many stories and theories.
    What ya have ta do is find the deviates that want to ban nursery rhymes from schools because of alsorts of nonsensical thoughts.
    Mary had a little lamb OH No its about humans doing things to animals Jack n jill is about how two kids do naughty things up the hill. shall I go on......? there is of course the thoughts that childrens stories are also full of things that naughty peeps do.

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  15. Whitesnake: I agree. Many are just made up. I stick to the ones I can prove through historical records, contemporaneous with the bygone eras.

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  16. I've heard this version of where the song came from too. Scary stuff.

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  17. What about "Humpty Dumpty," or "Jack and Jill?" Do they have deeper meanings too? I've read so many of these old rhymes to my children many times. Is there a book that explains their meanings? I would like to explain them to my children if there is. Miriam@Meatless Meals For Meat Eaters

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  18. JJ, in response to your query on my post, we think about it every day, and as soon as Keil is settled in a permanent place, and with a circle of dependable friends, we will become much more serious about the move. We look at real estate listings several times a week. I am ready for a change.

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  19. It's amazing that the little diddy stuck around for centuries.

    I remember singing,"Whistle while you work, Hitler is a jerk..." in the mid 60s.

    Interesting stuff, as always...

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  20. Yes, I have known about this meaning for far too long...I've always thought we need to begin pushing an entire new breed of children's songs and fairytales....ones with happier backgrounds/roots.....now how about Duck, duck,...grey duck...do you remember that one? Minnesota changes it a bit by the placement of adjectives before the nouns, like green duck, red duck, blue duck and etc until someone gets grey duck.... oh the silly games we still think about ....

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  21. Many of these nursery rhymes have secondary meanings.

    Humpty Dumpty referred to a cannon mounted on a wall next to a church during the English Civil War. Once the wall was destroyed, the cannon fell and could not be repaired by the troops.

    Jack and Jill referred to the French Royalty, King Louis VI, who lost his head (crown), and his Queen Marie Antoinette, whose head came tumbling after.

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  22. This is awesome! I love how so many things we find so innocuous are in reality a little bit dark and morbid. Children are rarely spared from the bad aspects of life - they just know how to turn events into games much better than adults do.

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  23. Phoenix: Great perspective! You are so right. We can learn so much from children. They know how to handle things better than we do. Yet, we often fail to protect them from the dark and morbid.

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  24. Hi JJ .. it's so interesting that all these nursery rhymes, fables etc - all tell us something, or we can learn about previous events .. and today they are still used. So much goes on that we don't realise ..

    Cheers - Hilary

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  25. It's interesting hey. My youngest son actually learned about some of these in primary school and learned then that there is a bit of a dark history behind some nursery rhymes. Another one I remember reading about back then was Mary, Mary Quite Contrary. Intriguing to read about.

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